Oxford and Cambridge universities may resort to the courts in an attempt to strip an historic London club of its name and coat of arms if it continues to refuse full membership to women.
Academics from Oxford's law department have been asked to establish whether the United Oxford and Cambridge University Club - which has no formal link with either university - can be forced into changing the name it has had since 1817.
The legal move is the latest in a series of broadsides against the Pall Mall-based club because of its discriminatory attitude towards women. The club, whose members are almost all Oxbridge graduates, will allow women to become "lady associates" but they are barred from using parts of the premises, including the members' bar, the library and the main staircase.
A series of public rows and resignations culminated on Tuesday in all but one of the 31 Cambridge college principals, and all but three of the 42 Oxford principals signing a statement publicly dissociating themselves from the club. The signatories had been either members, honorary members or lady associates.
Yesterday, Dr Peter North, vice chancellor of Oxford University, said preparations had already started to tackle the club if it failed to soften its approach.
"The university council has asked the law department to consider our legal position in relation to the use of the universities' names and our coats of arms," he said. "If the club does not change its mind, we will see where to go from there.
"The club is not formally affiliated to either university, although it draws its membership from graduates, and it is legally within its rights to refuse to have women as members. What we object to is that the image of our universities - which are equal opportunities establishments - are being coloured by the discriminatory attitude of the club."
Last night, Dr Stephen Fleet, registrar of Cambridge University, said its council had not yet asked its law department to undertake a similar study, preferring to await the club's response to Tuesday's statement. However, he said he was sure the university's legal experts "had already turned their minds to it".
Yesterday, it was not clear whether legal action would be necessary. The club's general secretary, Gordon Buchanan, was refusing to return calls.